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A Ripening Business

Sunday, October 5, 2003

A ripening business ; At this young Illinois vineyard, harvest time is no longer just a family affair [Chicago Final Edition]

Chicago Tribune - Chicago, Ill.

Author: Matt McGuire, Tribune staff reporter
Date: Oct 5, 2003

 

QUALITIES OF LIFE.

The Rocky Waters Vineyard started to take shape when Phyllis and Jared Spahn took to an overgrown patch of land with a weed trimmer and a couple of rakes. Seven years later, it took one forklift, two tractors, a small fleet of four-wheelers and about 50 workers to harvest this year's crop. The event has become a family tradition for the Spahns during the last several years. Phyllis and Jared's five children, the children's spouses and a small fleet of grandchildren spend the days pulling weeds and picking grapes and spend the evenings flipping burgers on the barbecue and tossing bocce balls on the beach of the vineyard's manmade lake.

"Usually the kids are crying when it's time to go home at the end of the weekend, but they're so worn out that they're asleep by the time we pull out of the driveway," said daughter Nicholle DeVecchi, who lives in nearby Galena with husband Luca and their four children. From the outset, this year's harvest looked large enough to exhaust even the grownups. There were more than 10 acres of grapes, with about 600 vines to an acre. In years past, the harvest was strictly a family affair, usually taking two or three days that doubled as an informal family reunion. Because of the volume of this year's crop, about 12 tons, the Spahns hired about 40 workers to assist in the harvest. So in the cool air just as the sun cracked the sky on that late- summer morning, the crew spread out across the Rocky Waters Vineyard, pickers slowly making their way down the carefully manicured rows of vines bearing clusters of grapes.

Picking, picking, picking

Although the Spahns weren't picking this time around, they were busy orchestrating the harvest. The pickers would be paid for each tray they filled, and Nicholle and Ashley, the wife of Kyle Spahn, walked through the rows, keeping careful track of each picker's production. Luca DeVecchi and Kyle Spahn carefully navigated the perimeter of the vineyard, each on his own four-wheeler, and hauled grape-filled trays back to a half-ton plastic container on the back of a tractor- trailer. Phyllis and her oldest son, Chuck, tracked down trays scattered throughout the vineyard and walked them back to the trailer. Grandchildren enthusiastically flocked to the filled trays between games of tag, then staggered under the 35 pounds of grapes as they carried them back to the depot. And Jared sneaked off to the bank, so he could pay his hired hands at the end of the day.

As smoothly as things were running this morning, there have been plenty of setbacks and obstacles. Like the year a herd of grazing cows trampled 3,300 vines in the nursery, leaving only 300 to survive. Or the time a hailstorm damaged a good portion of the crop. Bothersome? You bet. But not enough to derail Phyllis and Jared's plan. "There are a lot of people who start with a romantic notion of a vineyard but don't really have the mental commitment to see that it happens," said Bob Wollersheim, president of the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wis. "Once they find out how much work it really is, they lose their enthusiasm. The Spahns, however, are really committed to this." Wollersheim was at the harvest to lend a hand and his expertise. He bought about 6 tons of Marechal Foch grapes and about 2 tons of white Leon Millot grapes. At the end of the day, refrigerated trucks hauled the grapes the 110 miles to his winery, about 30 miles northwest of Madison. Most of the grapes would be used to make Wollersheim's Prairie Blush wine. Phyllis and Jared, 61 and 65, respectively, hope to have their own winery up and running by 2004, and they kept a portion of this year's crop to practice their winemaking skills. It wasn't always the couple's dream to start a winery. But after raising their family in Peoria and moving 150 miles north to Hanover (pop. 836), Jared and Phyllis wondered what they'd do with the 112 acres behind their new home. "We were talking about it one day and [Phyllis] asked me what I would think about starting a vineyard, and I had been thinking the same thing," Jared said. "At first, I don't think anyone took us seriously because at the time the land was overgrown with weeds and brush." It helped that the property--once the unruly multiflora rose bushes were removed and the land was tilled--was well suited for a vineyard. "Generally the best vineyards grow in soil that's not too rich. And there they have this rocky ground that's on a southern slope, which gives it direct sunlight," Wollersheim said. "With the slope, you also have the benefit that cold air drifts down away from it, which makes it less prone to frost--either in the spring or the fall- -giving you a nice long growing season for the plants to really mature." The Spahns got a fair amount of guidance in the beginning from Wollersheim and Imed Dami, who at the time was the State of Illinois' viticulture specialist.

Thirsting for cash

Jared still does a brisk computer consulting business from the couple's home on the vineyard. He chuckles at the idea of retiring; for now, his consulting is what keeps the vineyard afloat. The vineyard won't break even for at least two more years, Jared predicts, and once the winery is up and running, it'll take another five years before it becomes profitable. Once the Rocky Waters winery opens, it'll be the third in Jo Daviess County and one of 45 wineries expected in Illinois by mid- 2004, according to the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council. It's a growing industry in the state; in 1987, the year the council was founded and began tracking data, there were only nine wineries in Illinois. For now, the vineyard requires about 80 hours of work each week, with about 50 of those hours spent mowing the property. It's a full- time job for Phyllis. And Kyle, who bought five acres from his parents and built a home with Ashley, regularly lends a hand. It's Phyllis and Jared's hope that over time they'll hand off responsibility and ownership of both the vineyard and the consulting business to their children. Until then, the couple continues to oversee the vineyard's expansion. More vines will have matured by next summer, and the Spahns hope to pull a crop from 25 acres.

The vineyard, a long way from its rake and weed-trimmer days, will also have to hire its first full-time employees, Jared says. "And I suppose we'll have to buy a couple more mowers."

From vine to wine in 3 months

It'll be just less than three months between the Spahns' harvest and the time the Wollersheim Winery releases its Prairie Blush, a semi-sweet, citrusy wine that retails for about $7.50 a bottle.

Once the grapes made the 110-mile journey to the winery on the back of a refrigerated semi-truck, Wollersheim winemaker Philippe Coquard weighed the grapes and poured them into a crusher. The grape puree then ran through 5-inch-diameter hoses into a juicer, a contraption that resembles a giant colander that holds a balloon- like membrane. When the membrane expands, the grapes are pressed against the sides, squeezing out the juice. The Marechal Foch grapes from the Spahns' vineyard (just less than 6 tons) produced roughly 900 gallons of juice, which Coquard then transferred to fermentation tanks and kept at around 60 degrees for about a week. "We keep it at a pretty cool temperature because we want to keep the fresh, fruity character of the grapes," Bob Wollersheim says. Coquard stopped the fermentation process in early September by quickly dropping the temperature in the tanks to about 25 degrees, which leaves the wine in a slushy-like state. (Because of the alcohol, the wine freezes at a lower temperature than water.) The wine will sit in this state for several more weeks, during which time it will begin to settle and turn from a murky red to a clear, pinkish color. Finally, about a week before Thanksgiving, the wine will undergo a light filtering before being bottled. "The Prairie Blush is not quite dry--it has a little bit of sweetness that balances against its tartness--and it goes well with cheese and hors d'oeuvres," Wollersheim says.

Although Wollersheim wines aren't available in Illinois, they can be ordered at www.wollersheim.com.